Mark Zuckerberg has personally responded to critics of “Free Basics,” a controversial Facebook effort to expand Internet access in India that has come under withering criticism from tech activists.
“Free Basics,” formerly known as Internet.org, offers a free, stripped-down version of the Internet to consumers who cannot afford a broadband connection or smartphone data plan.
The service provides information on health, travel, jobs and local government. By offering a limited number of websites and services, and transmitting as little data as possible, costs are minimized.
Facebook is one of the apps included in the service. Others include AccuWeather, Ask.com, Baby Center, Bing, Dictionary.com and Wikipedia, among a handful of others.
Critics say the program violates the central tenets of net neutrality, which stipulate that all Internet content and users should be treated equally. They also say the program, billed as altruistic, too closely mirrors Facebook’s commercial aims.
Instead of just a few chosen sites, they ask, why can’t Facebook offer access to the entire Internet?
Zuckerberg pushed back against these critics on Monday, addressing the issue in an op-ed published in the Times of India. He said the “Free Basics” platform is open to all software developers, has no advertisements and will help less fortunate users escape poverty.
“Instead of wanting to give people access to some basic internet services for free, critics of the program continue to spread false claims — even if that means leaving behind a billion people,” the Facebook CEO wrote.
“Who could possibly be against this?” he asked.
The personal appeal is part of a larger public relations effort. Facebook(FB, Tech30) has been running full page advertisements in Indian newspapers in recent days, asking readers to “support digital equality.”
The campaign comes after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India asked Reliance Communications, one of India’s largest telecommunications firms, to stop providing the service while the regulator considers whether it’s legal. Facebook has urged users to contact the regulator and voice their support.
Internet activists, meanwhile, have continued to press their case against “Free Basics.”
Mahesh Murthy, a prominent Indian venture capitalist, has described the program as “imperialism and the East India Company all over again,” carried out under the lie of “digital equality.”
“What Facebook wants is our less fortunate brothers and sisters should be able to poke each other and play Candy Crush, but not be able to look up a fact on Google, or learn something on Khan Academy or sell their produce on a commodity market or even search for a job,” he said.
Amod Malviya, the former chief technology officer of Flipkart, has gone even further, calling the service a “modern twist to what essentially used to be the white man’s burden — that India’s poor need Facebook’s FreeBasics to free them.”
India has one of the world’s top tech scenes, where highly-educated engineers churn out cutting-edge apps. At the same time, hundreds of millions of Indians don’t have access to the Internet, even on a basic phone. Getting these users online is a top priority for Silicon Valley firms, who also hope that Indians will use their services in large numbers.
Google and other major tech firms agree that more Indians should have Internet access, but they have focused on providing services rather than building a new, limited ecosystem.
Earlier this month, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who was born in Chennai, said his company was committed to the principle of net neutrality. Google(GOOG) is, for example, working to offer free Internet access at 400 train stations across India.
“The Internet has been a level playing field and I don’t think we would be here today and have a strong, free and open Internet without net neutrality,” he said. “We’re very committed to it.”
But Zuckerberg’s approach has defenders in India, too.
“The elite Indian condemnation of Internet for the poor is cloaked in righteous objections,” the novelist Manu Joseph wrote recently in The New York Times. “In fact, it is paid Internet that is restrictive because it denies the web to those who cannot pay.”s